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Regional Matters

August 28, 2020

The Homework Gap: Digital Access at Home for Students in the Fifth District

As the 2020-2021 school year begins, school districts are grappling with decisions about how to teach students safely. Online learning is one option that many school districts are pursuing, either delivering all classes online or using a hybrid online in-person model. Online learning offers the possibility of delivering course content more safely, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted inequities in access to the basic materials needed for students to learn at home. This is called the “homework gap,” since some students can access online resources for their homework at home, while others are left to find internet connections in school parking lots or at the public library.

The two most common indicators of the homework gap are: (1) the share of households with children who have access to computers, and (2) the share of households that have a broadband internet subscription at home. Without a computer at home and access to the internet, online learning becomes a significant challenge for students. Using school district data from the Department of Education (ED), we show how these indicators differ by state and across rural, suburban, and urban areas within the Fifth District. Poor households are more likely to struggle with affording computer hardware and a monthly internet subscription, and these households are more likely to be found in urban and rural areas. The problem is compounded in rural areas by a lack of broadband internet infrastructure.

Identifying the Homework Gap

The ED’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides census data for public school districts. We use the 2014-2018 American Community Survey data on the share of households with school-age children that own a computer or have a broadband internet subscription. These data were matched with NCES’s school district locale codes, which provide a rural to urban continuum of school districts based on population size and distance from an urban area. The locale codes consist of four major categories: city, suburb, town, and rural. Each category has three subcategories: large, midsize, and small for cities and suburbs, and fringe, distant, and remote for towns and rural school districts. Each code is defined by the presence of a densely populated urban area or principal city and distance to urbanized areas.

Broadband Internet Subscriptions at Home

The chart below shows the percent of households with school-age children in public school districts who have a broadband internet subscription at home within the Fifth District by major locale code. Suburban school districts have the highest access to broadband subscriptions at home. Nearly 93 percent of households with school-age children in large suburb school districts have access to a broadband internet subscription at home, followed by 90 percent of households in midsize and 89 percent in small suburban school districts, respectively. At 85 percent, large and midsize city school districts had similar shares of home broadband subscriptions. As expected, school districts in towns and rural areas had the lowest shares of home broadband subscriptions. In rural areas, challenging topography, greater distance to existing broadband infrastructure, and low adoption rates make them less commercially viable for infrastructure expansion.

In the chart below, shares of households with school-age children and broadband subscriptions are reported for the states in the Fifth District (District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and most of West Virginia) combined for each geographic category used in NCES’s locale codes. The prevalence of broadband internet subscriptions is roughly similar for households in large and midsize city school districts and begins rising in small city school districts to the maximum in large suburban school districts. As school districts become less densely populated, the share of households with a broadband internet subscription falls to the lowest share in remote, rural school districts — as is the case across the Fifth District. (See chart above.) The lowest city home broadband subscription rate is in the District of Columbia at 77 percent, and the lowest town/rural rate is in South Carolina at 78 percent.

Computers at Home

A home broadband internet connection is just one part of the equation. Students also need access to a computer at home, and there may be competing demands for it if others are using it for work. The share of households with school-age children that have computers at home are higher than the share with broadband internet subscriptions. The geographic pattern seen with broadband internet subscriptions largely follows to computers at home. The chart below shows the share of households with school-age children with a computer at home across the Fifth District by the locale codes of public school districts. School districts in large suburbs again hold the advantage, with nearly 98 percent of households owning a computer. Urban school districts in large and midsize cities have about 95 to 96 percent of households owning a computer, with school districts in towns and rural areas having the lowest share. Rural towns with the greatest distance from urban areas have about 93 percent of households with school-age children owning a computer at home.

Similar patterns hold for major locale categories by state. As with broadband internet subscriptions, the lowest share of households with school-age children owning a computer is in the District of Columbia at 93 percent. Comparing school districts in town/rural areas, South Carolina has the lowest share at 93 percent.

Conclusion

As school districts navigate reopening this school year, there is no doubt that online learning options will play an increasing role. Students’ ability to successfully adapt to online learning opportunities depends in part on the tools available at home such as high-speed internet and computer hardware. Access to these tools vary by geography across the Fifth District. Households with school-age children in suburban school districts are more likely to have computer equipment at home and a high-speed internet connection, while households in urban and rural areas are less likely to have those tools.

To immediately respond to the need, some school districts are providing laptops directly to students and Wi-Fi hotspots for students to upload their homework and download lessons from the coming week.  Hotspots are successful to the degree that students can find transportation to them, which may be a barrier. Longer-term policy efforts could include addressing the affordability of internet subscriptions and expanding broadband infrastructure to rural areas.


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Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

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